I grew up in a ghetto. In fact, I spent the first 18+ years of my life in Olodi Apapa, popularly called “AJ City” or “Ghetto City,” in Lagos, Nigeria. It was survival of the fittest, but there, I made friends like family and learned invaluable skills and life lessons. Trust me, the lessons are relevant in diverse areas – career, faith, business, relationships, academics, finance, parenting, and others. In this piece, I will focus on some career lessons I learned as a child that have helped me grow professionally. I hope to share others in subsequent episodes.
- Build Your Ark Before It Rains: While in primary school, I belonged to the school’s march-past team. We would represent Wowo Primary School in different march-past competitions and during Independence Day celebration march-pasts. We always came first, and other competitors would attribute it to ‘juju’ (magic) or bribery, but one thing observers, judges, and even competitors can never deny was that our march pasts were always flawless. The secret was that we prepared way ahead of any competition. Immediately after we win a competition, we start working towards the next unknown competition. Our coach, a short, dark, slim, strict teacher, would carefully select the team from Primary 2, 3, and 4, so he could have a stable team who would grow with him before graduating. After school hours on selected days each week, we would stay back to practice for at least 2 hours. ‘Coachee’ or Mr Awo as we used to call him, would tell us, “The person in front of you is your mirror,” and he would ensure we bought or borrowed neat uniforms, the same shoes, socks, and caps ahead of time. While other schools were playing, we were planning and working, and the results were glaring on the pitch because our movements and looks were always in unison. In life and my career journey, this has helped me to strategically plan and prepare early for almost everything; it is one of the secrets of my academic excellence. Understandably, Murphy’s law may apply: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” but it will most time, meet me prepared. Like someone once said, “In the time of peace, prepare for war and peace.” Noah didn’t build the ark when it was raining. Strategic planning and preparation have helped me to be proactive, reduce waste (time, energy, and resources), and achieve exceptional results in my professional journey.
- If You Don’t Stand Up for Yourself, Who Will?: I used to be timid as a child. There was a boy called Qudus who always bullied me from primary 2–4. I loved education but hated school because of him. He would beat me on my way to and from school. I couldn’t tell anyone at home, I knew different long routes and would trek any just to avoid him. My immediate elder brother, Dan, who I always fight with at home, heard about it and challenged me to stand up for myself the way I did with him at home. I promised him I would the following week, but I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t. Monday came, and I followed one of my top-secret long routes. Surprisingly, Qudus was there, ready to pounce on me, and immediately I told myself, “Comfort, man die once.” I decided to defend myself this once. To date, it baffles me how it happened, but I vividly remember he was lying on the ground and I was on him, punching him as hard as I could, crying repeatedly, “No near me again” (don’t ever come near me). After a while, some people came to separate us. When I saw him later in class, the fear in his eyes assured me he would never come near me, and that was the end of bullying for me because potential bullies heard of it and stayed away. While I do not encourage violence, sometimes we must speak up or stand up for ourselves. Set healthy boundaries, inform others, and stick to them. This may come in the form of “Qudus,” fear, personal space invasion, emotional abuse, and others. If you don’t confront it, it will never stop. Since then, I’ve learned to face my fears, set healthy boundaries, and speak/stand up for myself when/if the need arises. After all, If I don’t stand up for myself, who will?
- The Strength of a Team Lies in the Conduct of Each: As a kid, my friends and I usually had plans to play at home after school, but ‘we propose, our mothers dispose.’ They always had other plans for us. They would either ask us to peel ‘egusi’ (melon seeds), make beads, hawk, or assist them in their trade (sewing in my case), and this can take the whole day. When there was nothing to keep us busy after school, our mothers would ask us to have our siesta. We were three friends who stayed on the same street, hence, we agreed everyone would help each person complete their task to create time for us to play or do our tasks at a place and have fun while at it; sometimes, we recruit others to help make the work faster. It worked! Also, I participated in extracurricular activities like inter-school debates and spelling bee competitions in secondary school. We had a team made up of researchers, writers, strategists, and representatives. Each contributed to ensuring the school’s representatives were well-equipped for the competition and brought victory to the school. So whether you like the representatives or not, the goal was to bring the trophy home. We cared less about our personal, religious, age, or ethnic differences, and we were a complete team because our diversity and each other’s skills were our strengths. Working with a diverse team is a plus because it results in increased creativity, lateral thinking, knowledge sharing, motivation, and synergy. The results we achieved opened my eyes to the power of teamwork, diversity, and collaboration, which have been crucial in my work with others. When people from different backgrounds work together devoutly towards a common goal, magic happens. Failure or win for one was failure or win for all. Knowing you are all in it together makes everyone do their damnedest, and the rest is history.
- Everything is Possible if You Believe and Work Toward It: In AJ City, there are numerous degrees of hardship and limited resources. Some families lived in shanties, some in small one-room apartments, others in waterlogged areas, and a few in decent houses. Most of the houses back then were “face-me-I-face-you” (A crowded compound with six or more rooms facing each other in a narrow passage and where all tenants share a toilet, bathroom, and kitchen). In all of these, you would see smart kids who had an unwavering determination to lift their families from poverty. We would share our big dreams and hopes despite our impoverished environment and bleak future. One thing was common among us, we wanted to become better than our parents, and we were ready to work towards it with or without our parents’ help. There was also the idea that a family should train the first child, who, after graduation, would get a good job/business, and train the next until the last person. I was the last of five kids, so I knew it would take a very long time to get to my turn. At an early age, I’d already planned to work immediately after high school so I could save for my university education like every other kid in the ghetto who didn’t have rich parents or relatives. Our compound was razed after I finished high school and started working, and that meant everyone had to fend for themselves. I was 19 at the time, and it affected my savings plans for higher education because I had to sort out my rent and other bills from my meager salary. It was tough, but I was determined to earn a degree. I denied myself a lot of things just to save enough money for university. Long story short, I had an OND (distinction), a B.A. (1st class), and an M.A. scholarship (distinction), all in Communications. That experience built my mental, emotional, resilient, and financial skills, among others, and made me believe that “everything is” indeed “possible if you set your mind to it.” It made me see challenges as problems to be solved for growth to happen. It also enhanced my flexibility, adaptation, and problem-solving skills, as well as drawing strength from my inner being in difficult times.
- Life is Short. Work Hard, Play Harder: Sometimes, we get so carried away with achieving our goals, coping with adulthood, and catching up with others’ definitions of success that we forget to play and enjoy the little things of life. As the youngest child, all the house chores fell on me. Our compound had no water, so I had to search for water in neighboring streets, wash the dishes, and cook before going to school every day. After school, I would go to my mom’s shop to help her sew and go home afterward to prepare dinner for the family. I hardly have time to play except during break time in school and on a few occasions when there isn’t much work to do. So, I ensured I fully maximized any free time I had. While my mates were “forming big girls,” I would join my juniors in playing, and it earned me the nickname “butterfly” because one minute I’m playing “ten-ten,” the next minute it’s “Suwe,” and the very next minute I’m skipping, playing football with the guys, or participating in “touch and do.” Looking back, those made my childhood fun. I worked hard and played even harder as a kid, and professionally, striking a work-life balance comes naturally – I plan my work and fun goals weekly. Work, but enjoy life in the little ways you can while you have life and health.
- Prayer Works: I come from a Christian family and never liked church because I had no friends there and my parents made going to church a do-or-die affair. I’ve heard about God during Sunday school and sermons and had sooo many questions. When I was 7, something happened. We had no electricity for over a month because our transformer had issues, and one of those days, my elder brother, Godwin, was explaining how God created the world, so I told him if God was that powerful to create the world with just words, then let Him give us “light” (electricity). “If you pray about it, He’ll answer you,” my brother replied. I felt it was impossible but was curious and wanted to humiliate him, so I closed my eyes and said, “God, if you really exist and you’re as powerful as they say, let there be light. Amen.” I opened my eyes and was about to give my brother that “I told you so” look when I heard people shouting “Up Nepa!!!” (power was restored), I was terrified and happy at the same time, and tears rolled down my cheeks uncontrollably. Coincidence? Power of the Universe? Whatever! For me, it was God! It was a big deal! That day, I believed God was real, and He answered prayers. I never stopped praying and believing ever since, especially in helpless and hopeless situations in my career and life generally.
These are personal, real-life experiences and lessons from my childhood in the slum, and they may not align with what others may have experienced or learned in the same or another environment. I am proud of the lessons I have learned and how they have shaped me and contributed to my growth. There were some traumatic experiences too, but I chose to share the ones that can inspire and make others better.